HARLEM AND UPPER MANHATTAN - Insight Guides: Experience New York City - Insight Guides

Insight Guides: Experience New York City - Insight Guides (2016)



Joe Buglewicz


Unlock the many flavors of the Harlem culinary scene


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The soul of Harlem has always been in its food, and every year that phrase becomes more and more true. With new restaurants opening up everyday, Harlem’s culinary presence is fast becoming the most interesting place to try new things and experience fresh twists on old favorites. By all means, take a ride up there for the jazz, the culture and the art. But don’t forget to grab a bite or two, or three. In fact, have all three bites at Red Rooster Harlem (310 Malcolm X Blvd; tel: 212-792-9001, [map] D4). You’re going to want to. The global soul food bistro is a mix of Southern-fried, East African, Scandinavian, and French flavors, and it’s packed every night of the week. Try the inspiring warm duck liver pudding, served with a few strips of pastrami-cured duck breast, or their savory spin on molten chocolate cake, with spiced foie gras bubbling out from the center.

A very welcome addition is Chez Lucienne (308 Malcolm X Blvd, tel: 212-289-5555, [map] D4) a French bistro bringing traditional dishes like beef bourguignonne and not so traditional dishes like calf’s-foot croquettes to Harlem’s streets. Sitting right next to the Red Rooster, this brick-walled establishment and its sinfully delicious coq au vin is brought to you by chef Matthew Tivy of Daniel. Yet, if you’re still craving something completely unexpected, then head over to Zoma (2084 Frederick Douglass Blvd, tel: 212-662-0620, [map] C2) for a sleek and candlelit visit to Ethiopia. Surrounded by crisp white dining room with a cascading chandelier overhead, you’ll sample lemony azifa, a lentil spread served in crunchy endive shells instead of on traditional injera bread, and doro wot, a slow-cooked chicken stew with a smash of ginger and berbere spices. Even though you’ll feel like you’ve had a decadent evening, the prices are refreshingly affordable and you walk away feeling like you’ve gotten plenty of that Harlem magic for your buck.

Catch a rising star at the Apollo Theater


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One night in the fall of 1934, a young woman stood backstage at the Apollo Theater, sweating and in obvious discomfort. A stage hand asked if she was ill. No, she replied, she wasn’t ill. ‘It’s that audience, man. You never know what they’re gonna do till you get out there.’ The woman was Ella Fitzgerald, then just 17. The occasion was Amateur Night, the show ‘where stars are born and legends are made’ that also launched the careers of Billie Holiday, Michael Jackson, Sarah Vaughan, The Supremes, and many of the biggest names in 20th-century black entertainment.

As you will learn on a tour of the legendary theater, Ms. Fitzgerald had good reason to be terrified. Audiences were notoriously vocal in their displeasure, and if less than pleased they would yell for the ‘executioner,’ a man with a broom who would sweep the contestant off stage. You’ll also hear how, when the theater opened in 1914, blacks were not admitted. By the mid-1930s, the Apollo was featuring such all-black revues as Jazz a la Carte and 16 Gorgeous Hot Steppers and was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, the great surge of music and literature that swept through New York’s famous black neighborhood in the 1930s and ’40s.

More than 75 years after the first legends got their start at Amateur Night, the show goes on - every Wednesday, at 7.30pm.

Apollo Theater box office: 253 West 125th St; tel: 212-531-5300; www.apollotheater.org; tours: Mon-Tue, Thu-Fri at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm, Wed at 11am, Sat-Sun at 11am and 1pm; [map] C3

Step back in time to the grand old homes of early New Yorkers


Julienne Schaer/NYC & Co

Two old homes, hidden among 20th-century apartment blocks, are especially evocative of the first days of the fledging nation, and they honor some pretty colorful early New Yorkers, too.

At the Morris-Jumel Mansion, (pictured) it’s easy to imagine beautiful Eliza Jumel gliding across the creaking pine floors and settling into one of the French Empire silk chairs. Eliza was no stuffy colonial dame. A former prostitute, she worked her way into ‘proper’ society and married wealthy wine merchant Stephen Jumel. In 1810 the couple bought a Palladian-style house that was built in 1765, became the Revolutionary War headquarters of George Washington, and is now the oldest home in Manhattan. Before long Eliza was a wealthy widow and advanced her status even further by marrying vice president Aaron Burr - from whom she soon filed for divorce, when she discovered how quickly her new husband was going through her fortune.

Among Eliza’s neighbors were the wife and children of Alexander Hamilton, first US secretary of the treasury, who in 1802 built a manor house, the Grange, on 32 acres of orchards, gardens, and parkland. The house shows off fine early American furniture, but the private life of Hamilton was a lot less tidy. His affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds, was one of the great scandals of early American politics, and in 1804 he was shot dead - by none other than Aaron Burr. The Grange has since been moved to St Nicholas Park, and the greenery outside the windows suggests the open land that once surrounded the house. The Morris-Jumel Mansion is at the end of Sylvan Terrace, a lane of wooden row houses from the 1880s.

Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Terrace (off 160th St); tel: 212-923-8008; www.morrisjumel.org; Wed-Fri 10am-4pm, Sat, Sun 10am−5pm; charge; [map] H2

Hamilton Grange, St Nicholas Park, 141st St and Convent Ave; tel: 212-666-1640; www.nps.gov/hagr; call or check online for hours; free; [map] H1

Visit the Little Red Lighthouse and take a bracing walk across the George Washington Bridge



Manhattan’s mighty towers often soar above much humbler structures, creating some of the city’s many visual treats. Nowhere is this juxtaposition more endearing than on the banks of the Hudson River at 178th Street, where the Little Red Lighthouse stands modestly but proudly in the shadows of the steel girders and concrete abutments of the George Washington Bridge. Both structures are beloved New York landmarks, though the lighthouse that once guided boat traffic up and down the river has not flashed its beacon since the bridge was completed in 1931. You can tour the lighthouse on some weekends from spring through fall, and any youngster who has read The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge will want to do so. In the 1942 classic the lighthouse becomes convinced it is no longer needed when a beacon begins flashing atop the bridge, but comes to the rescue one foggy night to warn boats away from the rocks, proving that the big and the small are both important.

You can walk to New Jersey and back across the 600ft-high, 4,750ft-long George Washington Bridge on a walkway elevated more than 200ft above the river. The trek is especially rewarding on a clear day, when you can see south to the city skyline and way upriver to the forested hills that cradle the Hudson Valley. You can enter the walkway from Fort Washington Avenue and 178th Street. To reach the lighthouse, follow the well-marked path from Lafayette Street and 181st Street.

Information tel: 212-304-2365; [map] G2

Step into the Middle Ages at the Cloisters and explore its peaceful wooded surroundings


Will Steacy/NYC & Co

Modern Manhattan becomes magnificently medieval at the Cloisters, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art tucked away in the Fort Tryon Park at the far northern tip of the island. Five cloisters from southern France have been reassembled on a bluff high above the Hudson River, and they are surrounded by atmospheric galleries filled with 5,000 pieces of European art and architecture from the Middle Ages. Each vaulted room and stone-walled corridor reveals another treasure: as you meander you’ll come upon seven wall hangings of the Unicorn Tapestry, a 12th-century monastery chapter house, a Romanesque chapel, the sumptuously illustrated book of hours of the Duc de Berry, ivory crosses, carved portals, and a deck of 15th-century playing cards.

The greatest pleasure is seeking out a corner of one of the cloisters and quietly contemplating the surroundings. An especially peaceful spot is the 13th-century Bonnefont Cloister, from a Cistercian abbey and surrounded by simple columns that were left undecorated in case they should distract the monks from prayer. Beds are shaded by quince trees and planted with more than 400 herbs that surround a beautiful marble well, and the surroundings are not only serene but aromatic.

When industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller donated the Cloisters to the city in the 1930s, he threw hundreds of parkland acres across the Hudson River in the New Jersey Palisades into the deal. You will appreciate his foresight when you step out onto the West Terrace and take in the generous sweep of river and greenery, so unspoiled that the medieval surroundings seem remarkably in place.

Fort Tryon Park

The Cloisters is nestled within densely wooded Fort Tryon Park, on high ground that once harbored Weckquaesgeek Indians, Dutch colonialists, and the Continental Army, who established a series of outposts on bluffs they collectively called Fort Washington. More than 8 miles of paths traverse the woods and come to terraces overlooking the Hudson River. As you explore this beautiful and uncrowded park, stop in at the New Leaf Restaurant and Bar (L and D Tue-Sun, tel: 212-568-5323) in a stone building at the park entrance, with a lovely patio.

The Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park; tel: 212-923-3700; www.metmuseum.org; Tue-Sun 9am-5.15pm; suggested donation $20; [map] G3

Take the a train... or, better yet, the M4 bus

The fastest way to reach the Cloisters is on the A train, getting off at 190th Street and walking about 10 minutes to the museum through Fort Tryon Park. The M4 bus supplies a far more scenic trip. On the hour or so ride from Midtown you will get a good overview of Manhattan in all its diversity, and pass many of the sights mentioned in this guide. Catch the M4 as it crosses east from Penn Station across 34th Street and heads north up Madison Avenue. Take a seat and keep an eye out for: Madison Avenue shops (for more information, click here); a glimpse of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (for more information, click here); the north end of Central Park (for more information, click here); the south side of the Cathedral of St John the Divine (for more information, click here); the west end of Harlem’s legendary 125th Street, home to the Apollo Theater (for more information, click here); Audubon Terrace and the Hispanic Society of America (for more information, click here); Fort Washington Avenue, lined with Art Deco apartment houses; and finally, Fort Tryon Park and the entrance to the museum.

Hear Gospel music and enjoy soul food in Harlem


Clayton Cotterell/NYC & Co

Two fine old institutions, one appealing to the soul, the other to the stomach, will introduce you to the spirit of Harlem. You can experience them in half a day - provided the day is a Sunday, and you are willing to make an early start to attend one of the Gospel services at 9 or 11am at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Ethiopian seamen founded the congregation in lower Manhattan in 1818 (choosing the ancient name of their homeland). Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Sr moved the church to its beautiful neo-Gothic home in 1923; his son, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, became the first black congressman in US history. Abyssinian is still a vigorous voice for social justice, and the church also puts on one heck of a show when the beautiful sounds of the choir ring out in a sanctuary lit by a sea of stained glass. Visitors are asked to wait for admittance in a special queue and to dress appropriately - that means arriving early and wearing your Sunday best if you expect to fit in with the congregation.

Sylvia’s Soul Food (328 Malcom X Blvd, tel: 212-996-0660; pictured), several blocks south, serves a post-service brunch of such stick-to-your ribs basics as fried chicken and sweet potato pie. Sylvia’s has been a Harlem institution since it opened the restaurant in 1962, and is still run by Sylvia Woods, the ‘Queen of Soulfood,’ and her children and grandchildren.

You’ll need to walk off that meal, so head back up Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard to 138th and 139th streets, collectively known as Strivers’ Row. Some of New York’s most beautiful blocks were built for wealthy whites in the 1890s but, as the neighborhood became black, were sold off to black middle-class professionals known as ‘strivers.’ Today, Strivers’ Row is prime real estate, and you will easily see why.

Abyssinian Baptist Church, 132 Odell Clark Place; tel: 212-862-7474; [map] D5

Come face to face with a gargoyle at the colossal Cathedral of St John the Divine


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The Cathedral of St John the Divine is usually described in superlatives that refer to the church’s enormous size - St John’s is the fourth-largest Christian church and largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and the rose window, best appreciated from Broadway and 112th Street, is the largest stained-glass window in the United States, containing more than 10,000 colored pieces. You’ll get a sense of the sheer vastness of the place - two football fields long and 17 stories tall - as soon as you step inside.

Like the rest of ever-changing Manhattan, the cathedral is a perpetual construction site, and has been a work in progress since 1892. Unlike many of the great European cathedrals, set off in greenery, St John is squeezed onto its urban site, giving the impression that the church is even bigger than it is. Provided you don’t succumb to vertigo, you can get a good perspective of the overwhelming vastness of the church on a Vertical Tour. You will climb high above the nave on spiral staircases, cross the flying buttresses, and emerge next to the gargoyles on the roof, peering at carvings and stained glass as you go.

Cathedral of St John the Divine, 112th St and Amsterdam Ave. Vertical Tour: Sat only, noon and 2pm, charge; other tours are conducted throughout the week; For more information, call 212-932-7347; [map] B2

Enjoy a carillon concert and a pretty patch of greenery at Sakura Park



Should you find yourself on Riverside Drive at 121st Street on Sundays at 10.30am, 12.30pm, or 3pm, you will be treated to a free concert - a very loud concert provided by 74 bronze bells, including a 20-ton monster that is the heaviest bell ever cast, presented to Riverside Church by John D. Rockefeller in memory of his mother. The bells are installed in a carillon that rises 392ft above the city, gracing New York with a skyscraper bell tower that is, quite fittingly, the world’s tallest. Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and other world figures have spoken beneath the church’s acres of stained glass.

Sakura Park, at the base of the tower, is one of the prettiest patches of greenery in New York, and with its tidy gravel paths and orderly rows of trees, seems like an elegant square in Paris. In fact, a soft gray Parisian melancholy washes over this quiet stretch of Riverside Drive, providing suitable surroundings for Grant’s Tomb, the somber mausoleum of the Civil War general and 18th president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.

Just up the street is a more humble, yet touching memorial ‘to the memory of an amiable child … 5-year-old who fell to his death from these rocks on July 15, 1797.’

The schist that begins to emerge in the neighborhood becomes more pronounced the farther north you go. By 181st Street, the island’s rocky underpinnings erupt in a tall cliff that was a strategic stronghold during the Revolutionary War, when patriots lost the Battle of Fort Washington from ramparts that are now outlined in granite blocks.

Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive at 121st St; tel: 212-870-6700; [map] A3

Rub shoulders with Spanish Old Masters on Audubon Terrace


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Step west off Broadway at 155th Street, climb the short flight of steps, walk through the tall iron gates, and you’ll be transported to one of the most elegant yet little-known corners of New York, Audubon Terrace. The assemblage of colonnaded Beaux-Arts limestone facades rising above a handsome brick walk was erected in the early 20th century by railroad heir Archer Milton Huntington on the former estate of John James Audubon, the famous American wildlife artist.

The Terrace is home to the Hispanic Society of America. Beyond the proud portals of this august institution you will be transported even further, into a dark Spanish palace hung with works by El Greco, Velázquez, and a Goya masterpiece, the portrait of his mistress, the Duchess of Alba. The high-ceilinged galleries surround an inner court modeled after the courtyard of a castle in Spain. Audubon Terrace exudes an air of faded glory and forgotten grandeur, making the place all the more charming, and one of the city’s most welcome retreats.

Audubon Terrace, 613 W. 155th St; tel: 212-926-2234; Tue-Sat 10am-4.30pm, Sun 1am-4pm; free; [map] G2

A Sculpture Garden

Another peace-inducing New York oasis is the Noguchi Museum (32-37 Vernon Blvd, Long Island City, tel: 718-204-7088, www.noguchi.org, Wed-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 11am-6pm) in Queens. A former gas station and photogravure plant have been fashioned into a museum-garden to house the stone, steel, wood, and paper works of Japanese-American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-88). The serene surroundings are an island of calm in the industrial neighborhood, all the better to show off the beautiful mastery of Noguchi, whose works grace urban spaces around the world. His Red Cube is a colorful landmark in the Financial District, at 140 Broadway.